I've been travelling for about 7 years so far, and have lived in places like beef-crazy Buenos Aires, shrimp-hungry Brazil, fish-famous Donegal, paella filled Spain, and foie-gras-loving France. My own way to get to know the culture of these places involves learning and hacking their languages and spending my time almost entirely with locals, but as a vegetarian, eating the above dishes is not part of the reason that I travel.
Despite this, I've learned how to avoid creating an awkward situation and how to sample some local cuisine and, most importantly, not go hungry, without breaking my lifelong trend of never eating meat or fish. Today I'd like to share how I do this, for any other travelling vegetarians out there!
- Learn to cook. If your temporary home, hostel or Couchsurfing host has a kitchen, then the simplest and least expensive option is to just cook at home! No matter where you go, you will always find ingredients in markets to cook a wide range of vegetarian dishes. If you are short on ideas, and don't have a vegetarian cook-book handy, then definitely check out the vegetarian cooking videos on scoff.tv.
- Know that the translation of “vegetarian” is not so useful. Je suis végétarien / Soy vegetariano etc. have been hugely useless phrases for me both for eating well and for even avoiding meat. Vegetarian can mean anything from a dull plain food that just happens to have no meat (and no vegetables either; i.e. zero nutritional or taste value) to simply “no red meat”, with people insisting that poultry and fish are as veggie as you can get. Using this word can result in someone only feeding you lettuce, imagining vegetarians as nothing more than scurrying rabbits, or someone packing “thin slices” of meat into your food and actually thinking that they are helping. It's not their fault, the word itself simply does not translate well.
- Be very clear about what you can eat. When I have mistakenly asked if there was anything “vegetarian” in a restaurant and plainly told no, I didn't give up and asked “Is there anything with no meat, fish or chicken (yes, chicken “isn't meat” in a lot places) on the menu?” and actually get lots of options. So many people simply don't understand the v word. It's fine to use it in a list to describe yourself, but in actual eating situations, avoid it and be clear about what you want.
- Get a phrasebook and learn the food vocabulary section. A phrasebook is an excellent way to get a start learning a language. Most good ones not only have a normal dictionary at the back, but a dictionary entirely dedicated to food! Knowing some basic words such as the names of meat to be avoided etc. will save you time when reading a menu.
- Learn Italian (and Indian etc.) food vocabulary. Globalisation means that even in the smallest town you can still find international food. Chains like McDonald's may not be very useful to the likes of us, but there are other options! Most of the time, menu explanations are entirely in the local language (outside of touristy areas), but if you haven't learnt that language yet or are only passing through briefly, then it can help to “cheat” and use the international language of food – Italian! When I was in Slovakia, I was actually there to learn Esperanto so knowing just “where is the nearest” in Slovak, I added “pizzeria”! Lucky for me the one I found was Italian/Slovak bilingual and I could choose a nice meal without any trouble, because the menu was half in Italian (for those who have learnt to read a few Italian words) and the waitress was Italian (for those who can speak it)! Many pizzerias can also have a wide range of pastas that can be very healthy when eaten in moderation, especially when vegetables are included. Indian and other vegetarian culture restaurants can also be in a lot of places and I will always go straight for the Aloo Gobi in that case! Many kebab places can include a very filling Falafel option.
- Vegetarian restaurants Happy cow is an excellent online listing of vegetarian-friendly restaurants all around the world, with honest reviews from customers. It isn't extensive (lots of “normal” restaurants may have vast vegetarian options) but it does simplify things hugely to just go to a vegetarian restaurant.
- Copy the ideas from local veg restaurants. The best part of local vegetarian restaurants is that a lot of them will adapt the local cuisine to suit vegetarians. I wouldn't eat regularly in these types of restaurants since they are not usually frequented so often by many locals (and because of this, they may also be quite expensive), but their menus give great inspiration for ways to cook local food or ideas to suggest to those cooking for you.
- Order a simple meal + vegetables, or several starters. Sometimes there is no “healthy” vegetarian option available, and you may need to go for something very plain. Most restaurants do have vegetables, but will only ever include them in complex meat dishes. In this case, if I want to make sure I eat well, I ask for the simple meal (plain rice or just a plain Margarita pizza for example) and also request cooked vegetables “on the side” that I add myself. Alternatively, a combination of several starters may be a fine and filling meal in themselves!
- If there's nothing on the menu, make a request! Maybe something looks particularly interesting, but they've included chicken in it. Simply ask them to prepare it with your favourite vegetable(s) instead of chicken. Almost every restaurant in the world will be flexible with their menus. This is one of the ways I eat in restaurants with “no vegetarian options”. This is not always the case, so confirm that they can change something for you before you sit down!
- Find local veg-friendly equivalent concepts. Surprisingly, there are options that you wouldn't directly associate with vegetarianism that work spectacularly well with it. In Buenos Aires I discovered, to my delight, that instead of using the v word, if I simply looked for the dieta section on some menus (and even “diet” restaurants!!) they were almost exclusively vegetarian! I had to double check to be sure, but I ate very well thanks to the word dieta (I'm far from on a diet btw!!) and not from the word vegetariano. Here in Brazil, the “self service” (they use the English words in Portuguese) restaurants usually have vast arrangements of vegetarian options that are presumed to be eaten beside the meat. You pay by weight so it is an extremely cheap option that is available absolutely everywhere and gives you great freedom in variation. I've eaten very well in South America from these discoveries!
- Ask other travellers what to do in that destination. Since it's too hard to write an exhaustive list for the vegetarian options in every place, the best option is to ask other travellers (this is the one situation where I would not ask locals, who typically just list the vegetarian restaurants) for advice on where you are going. You can find great travel advice in the Lonely Planet thorntree forum and on Couchsurfing group discussions, in each case going to the particular forum for the city/country you are visiting.
- Order delivery. If you are somewhere with no options nearby, just order food to be delivered to you! Delivery may be free and they can be flexible in where to go. Last night I had a vegetarian pizza delivered to me on the beach 🙂
- Have an easy-going attitude to the whole thing. Although I am very strict about not eating meat & fish, I try not to distance myself from locals and I attempt to present a different side of vegetarianism to them. As you can see in the photo above, I may crazily gobble down my dish like a hungry animal and I like to make up silly stories about how us veggies also “hunt” our food as we “stalk” our prey in the fresh food markets before striking. I quite enjoy mocking meat eaters about their “pathetic” canine teeth, and reliance on ovens and utensils, when I'm clearly closer to the “manly” wild natural option, etc. Whenever I can tell that there is little point in trying to present a logical argument for vegetarianism to someone, I skip the whole argument and give them the conclusion they'd reach anyway and say “I'm vegetarian because I'm crazy!”
If vegetarianism is something that you are just “trying out”, then I'd actually recommend that you don't take the diet with you as you travel and make things easier for yourself. It can be stressful and frustrating to maintain this diet in a lot of places and if you are not 100% committed (for moral or health etc. reasons) then you may be better simply trying it out after your travels.
If you are a vegetarian for moral reasons then you have to be very careful about how you express this. Do not try to convert foreigners to vegetarianism or present your case with moral superiority. This concept is simply not (currently) compatible with many cultures and you will actually offend a lot of people simply by not eating their local food or suggesting that animals are suffering for their lunch. Learning how to present your case in a logical way and being ready for the typical retorts will help people to respect your dietary decision. But when abroad, the goal should primarily be to gain respect and much less be one of convincing people.
My own reasons to be a vegetarian are less in-your-face. I was very sick as a baby and was put on an extremely restricted diet for medical reasons, and out of pure stubbornness I stayed on that diet longer than I should have and slowly adapted to a more healthy lifestyle by expanding it without incorporating any meat or fish. Since my body is completely unaccustomed to meat, the very few times I have mistakenly eaten some, I have felt ill for several hours. I could just force my body to get used to it, but I don't want to now for the many common reasons that vegetarians chose this diet.
The advantage of my story is that it doesn't leave much room for argument. I get sick if I eat meat. Most people will sympathise with that. I have found that the exact same discussion (it gets old after the millionth time!!) of going into reasons can be avoided if you give an answer like this. The simplest argument of all that you could use is just “I don't like meat” and is less likely to lead to awkward discussions.
We have to respect them too
Many proud vegetarians won't like this, but you have to adopt an apologetic approach in a lot of countries. People have to go out of their way to help you; based on their cultural history they don't have to cater to vegetarians, but they may do it anyway out of generosity and respect for foreign culture and you should always show gratitude for this and be humble in asking for the favour of their help in catering for your needs.
Always warn a family in advance before eating at their house and make lots of suggestions. In many cultures it is an insult to bring your own food to social events, so sometimes the easiest solution is to eat before you go and to simply have the non-meat “snack” at the event, honestly saying that you aren't hungry.
However, arguing on moral or other grounds is arguing against a lifestyle that someone has led for decades, and this will not make you many friends. I am not interested in converting the world to vegetarianism, despite that fact that things would be a lot easier for me if it did. People live their lives as they chose to. Using a much less aggressive approach and argument, will make your life a lot simpler! If people are genuinely curious about your reasons, then as long as you express it as a lifestyle that you happen to prefer, and in a non-confrontational way, people will be very curious to hear your opinions. 🙂